The Zero, by Games Consoles Worldwide, is a spiritual successor to the Dingoo handheld gaming system. Pioneered by Justin Barwick, a former Dingoo reseller, the GCW Zero attempts to fix the faults of the Dingoo, while maintaining the support of an established community. The handheld is powered by an Ingenic JZ4770 1 GHz MIPS processor, features a Vivante GC860 GPU, 3.5 inch LCD, 512 MB DDR2 RAM, and 16GB of internal storage. What this translates into is the power to play PC games, support modern homebrew games and applications, and to emulate retro video game systems, all in the palm of your hand.
The GCW Zero received funding thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. The campaign was backed by 1,680 people and raised $238,498. For those that were not aware of the campaign, the Zero is currently available on Thinkgeek.com for $149.99. What will arrive in the mail is a well conceived end product. The box is a high grade professional cardboard that proudly displays images of the Zero, a few of the included freeware homebrew games, and some information about the handheld. The Zero is well supported inside the box by a cardboard shelf. Under the shelf is a mini-USB cable, a mini-HDMI cable, a mini-USB adapter, a wall charger, a soft carrying pouch, and an AV-out cable. The Zero comes pre-installed with a few games and some applications. Assuming the unit arrives with a bit of charge, the box contains everything you need to get gaming, almost instantly.
For size comparisons, the Zero is about as long and wide as the Galaxy S4 smart phone or a standard 3DS, and is just about a half of an inch thick. The Zero is currently available in two colors, white or black. The plastic shell is comfortable to hold and smooth to the touch. The unit has two shoulder buttons, 4 face buttons, start and select buttons, a d-pad, and an analog stick. The top of the unit has the AV-out and mini-HDMI ports. The bottom of the unit has a DC port, mini-USB port, microSD slot, and a set of stereo speakers. There is a wrist strap or charm connecting slot on the left and the power-slider on the right.
The power-slider can be used in conjunction with different button sequences to provide a variety of shortcut controls. These shortcuts can determine which kernel to boot, can be used to reboot the system, adjust the audio level, adjust the screen brightness, create screenshots, soft-reset back to the main menu, and more. For a full list of supported shortcuts be sure to read the GCW Quick Start Guide, linked at the bottom of this post.
The Zero features a 3.5 inch, 320x240, LCD screen. This screen was chosen by GCW as the resolution is ideal for the intended retro gaming and emulation experiences. A larger screen would have required a software scaler, and increased CPU intensity. The decision to go with the smaller screen has translated into lower costs, better battery life, crisper graphics, and an overall more enjoyable experience for the end user.
Currently, there is no virtual file system for the internal microSD card. This means that the internal memory does not pop-up for drag-n-drop file transfers as one might expect. The development team hopes to remedy this in the future with the implementation of a Media Transfer Protocol (MTP). Until that time, connecting to the file system will require FTP, SFTP, SCP, Telnet, WIFI, SSH, or the GCW Zero Manager application. While this sounds like an extra step, I can assure you that the Zero is extremely easy to set-up and maintain. If your installed firmware does not contain the Network application, you will need to FTP into the device and install the update before you can transfer files over WIFI or with the GCW Zero Manager. The management software is a simple tool that will allow you to transfer and delete the GCW Zero software. It is the most rudimentary tool for putting new games and applications onto your Zero. It simply relies on a “one-button solution” that does all of the work for you. For more in-depth control of the Zero, an FTP (SFTP, SCP) client is recommended, as some software may require the creation of directories, manipulation of configuration files, additional data files, etc.
Almost all software is placed into the same internal directory. Once software is transferred, it will automatically populate the correct gmenu2x tab based on included metadata. These features make it extremely easy to keep the Zero organized, yet this does limit those that prefer more organizational control over their files. Software is launched by pressing A, and boot-up times are usually under 3 seconds.
The controls and buttons are very responsive. The d-pad issues that plagued the Dingoo designs are non-existent. The plastic d-pad and buttons may rub, ever-so-slightly, on the side of the shell. This is something that users have reported will elevate itself after some break-in time. The placement of ports is ideal, and it shows that GCW greatly considered the faults of the systems it succeeds. The bottom mounted speakers do a good job of reproducing sound, yet I have found that they become muffled by my hands. I have always been a fan of front facing speakers and I do wish they had been implemented here. The design of the handheld itself fits comfortably in my hands, is an ideal weight for long gaming sessions, and places the front facing input buttons in easy to reach positions. I never once felt strain while transitioning from d-pad to analog stick, or when reaching for the start button.
I have not yet ventured very far into the supported emulation, yet what I have tried has been an enjoyable experience. The Zero currently supports a variety of classic experiences including NES, Genesis, SegaCD, DOS, ScummVM, GB, GBA, Master System, SNES, Game Gear, Arcade (MAME, FBA), PC, MSX, ZX81, TG-16, Atari, and more. Classic games like Doom and Strife run at full speed. Unique homebrew offerings such as Unnamed Monkey Game are an exceptional treat to play. Emulation feels accurate and fast, adding to the overall enjoyment of this handheld. While the Zero does not yet support as many software offerings as the Dingoo, the community is growing and more projects are being released as units get into the hands of developers. GCW has plans to create a paid option in their software repository, which may mean new Indie projects making their way to the handheld in the near future.
The Zero was designed to be a handheld console. In fact, official reports often refer to it as a console and not a handheld. It can accept input from peripherals such as a mouse, keyboard, or external controllers. The idea is that connecting the Zero to a TV via HDMI will result in a portable gaming console that accepts the correct input for the required end result. The system also supports WIFI, which means both local and world wide multi-player gaming sessions are possible. While I have yet to test any of these features, both images and video confirm that they do function.
The GCW software development team have proven themselves to be incredibly supportive of the Zero. Firmware updates continually bring new features, while software ports are being discussed, tweaked, and released. What sets the Zero apart from other Dingux supported systems is the accessibility of their core development team. They moderate the official forums and they maintain a presence on IRC. Everyone I have spoken with is not only knowledgeable, but extremely approachable and willing to take the time to discuss all aspects of the Zero. Those that have followed suit have been equally receptive to community responses, questions, and criticism. As long as this trend continues, the Zero should have a long life of fully supported games, emulation, applications, and retro experiences.
While I am personally really enjoying the Zero, I am well aware that it may not be for everyone. The system was developed to answer the needs of the Dingoo community, and remains geared towards classic gaming experiences. Those that wish to compare the Zero to modern handhelds with higher specs should keep what the Zero set out to accomplish in mind. It is not a portable N64 and it is not competition for the PSP. It is an open source Linux-based handheld, designed for developers who wish to quickly and easily port their projects, and for gamers who wish to enjoy them. It will be up to developers to embrace the system and to push its hardware in new directions. Homebrew releases like Unnamed Monkey Game, and the recently released Dreamcast EMU, clearly show us what new experiences the Zero can bring.
A full review of the Zero, its history, the hardware, its software, and all included aspects is already in the works. I hope to bring you this review in the coming month. Stay tuned to my Twitter account (@AW_GBAtemp) for news, info, and updates related to this review. As I uncover things about the Zero, and test new software, my reactions will be reported there first. If you have any questions about the Zero or its software, be sure to seek out the development team via their IRC channel. (irc.freenode.net, #GCW).
Purchase from ThinkGeek.com
GCW Zero Homepage
GCW Zero Kickstarter Campaign
GCW Zero Quick Start Guide
GCW Zero Official Forums
GCW Zero Official IRC Chatroom